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Personalities Trump Talent

SANTA FE, N.M. — Two guys become friends when they’re little boys, grow up playing together, start a beloved rap group so good their peers in the music industry consider them iconic masters of sound. That group releases three albums, then disbands, despite a huge appetite for their brand of jazzy hip-hop.

So, why’d they split?

The new documentary “Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest” wants to remind us why Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White were so celebrated as the rap group A Tribe Called Quest. But it also wants to figure out just why the hell they’d walk away from something so sweet.

The answer is sadly basic. Sensitivity. Personality clashes. An inability to say “sorry,” or an inability to hear it. A Tribe Called Quest ended not with a bang, but with a whimper. It’s good to know these things – not just because it’s interesting to watch artists fall apart but because it makes them more like us. These are still guys, after all.

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There’s a scene – great for what it demonstrates, terrible for what it is – in which Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, the band’s frontmen, are each rambling about each other in separate areas backstage at a reunion concert. The camera holds on them for longer than can be considered comfortable. In the background, we see their stoic D.J., Shaheed Muhammad, with a completely blank expression on his face. He’s waiting for it to end.

As I was watching the film, I jotted into my notebook “Both of them going on and on and it’s all bull. …” I wrote down one actual line, from Phife: “Why you always gotta be the center of attention?”

This is a worthy subject, because Tribe Called Quest was an awesome music group. Rap has gone through phases, and they came after the misogynistic (though nonetheless great) “(Bleep) the police” era of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre’s N.W.A.

They were not, as someone says in the film, about being gangsters.

Instead, they took the smooth voice of Q-Tip and the harder, tricky-high vocal stylings of Phife Dog, and mixed them with looping samples from classic records. This made music you can’t resist moving your head to. I defy even the squarest of you readers to look up “Can I Kick It” and not enjoy its mellow pace and sound.

They were pioneers, revered by their peers. A parade of great hip-hop artists like The Beastie Boys’ Mike D and Common and Mos Def and The Roots’ Questlove talk candidly about how much they enjoyed Tribe’s sound.

But they couldn’t keep it together. A remarkable confession by Q-Tip comes in a section of the film focused on Phife’s struggles with debilitating diabetes. Q-Tip admits he felt like Phife was being weak during that stretch of their careers.

Q-Tip is an amazing artist with a talent for finding old records and picking the best beats to rap against. But he is also a nutty perfectionist, and it drove his collaborators, including his band mates, crazy.

Phife could spit some of the wildest lines in a way no one else could, but he also seems to have a fragile soul.

These guys love each other. They have to. But little issues grow into big issues when friends work together professionally in a field like music.

It’s fascinating and a little funny that “Beats, Rhythm and Life” is the directorial debut of the actor Michael Rapaport. I’ve seen this guy in so much stuff. He played Phoebe’s cop boyfriend on “Friends.” He did 57 episodes of a pretty decent show about teachers called “Boston Public.” He was in “Big Fan” and “Beautiful Girls” and the Schwarzenegger-clone actioner “The 6th Day.”

But what he’s best at is the white-guy-who-wishes-he-were-black role. He’s just got that tone and look. He played this memorably in the very effecting 1995 college drama “Higher Learning.” He makes that sort of character endearing instead of annoying – a hard line to walk.

And here he is, a white fan of a classic hip-hop group, making a film about them because he wants to understand why they split up. Their music isn’t for him, but we can’t help what we like. Rapaport knows just which songs to use where (there’s a lot of great music in “Beats”). He gets these men to open up about something that isn’t easy to explain – why they were willing to walk away from something great, something a ton of people listened to and loved. They wouldn’t open up like they do in the film, I’d bet, if they didn’t appreciate a charmingly endearing director. He directs like he acted, and that’s pretty well.

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